Iraqi electoral commission member Adel al-Lami says the turnout was around eight million voters, or roughly 60 percent of the country’s 14 million registered voters.

In doing so, Iraqis defied threats of violence and calls for a boycott to have their say in the country’s first free election in half a century.

Insurgent activity, seeking to wreck the vote, was relatively light but struck polling stations with suicide bombings and mortar strikes killing at least 44 people, including nine suicide bombers.

Insurgent attacks started within two hours of the ballot’s start, with Baghdad seeing eight suicide attacks, mostly against polling sites, using bombers on foot with explosives strapped to their bodies since private cars were banned from the streets.

And rumours of impending violence were rife.

When an unexplained explosion sounded near one Baghdad voting station, some women put their hands to their mouths and whispered prayers.

Others continued walking calmly to the voting stations.

Several shouted in unison “We have no fear.”

Many people walked shoulder-to-shoulder to the heavily-defended polling stations.

Voting was muted in the morning as people calculated the threat of violence, and as confidence grew, voter numbers picked up in the afternoon.

“This is democracy,” said Karfia Abbasi, holding up a thumb stained with purple ink to prove she had voted.

Voter turnout was brisk in Shi’ite Muslim and mixed Shi’ite-Sunni neighbourhoods of Baghdad, with US officials saying some stations ran out of ballots.

Even in the small town of Askan in the so-called “triangle of death” south of Baghdad, 20 people waited in line at each of several polling centres.

The turnout in the Sunni Muslim heartland was not overwhelming, but some took heart in the fact people stepped forward to vote on the frontline of the insurgency

Sunnis, who make up 20 per cent of the polulation, received preferential treatment under Saddam’s Sunni Baath Party that ruled the country for 34 years

Industry minister Hajem al-Hassani says he was surprised by the turnout in Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces.

“We didn’t think there would be any turnout and there was. We thought it would be only in single digits, but it was definitely much better than we expected in Mosul and Salahuddin,” Mr Hassani says.

The minister, who broke with the influential Sunni Muslim Islamic Party over the US-led assault of Fallujah last November and chose to stay in the government, was convinced the next government would be able to reach out to Sunnis who boycotted the political process.

His fears are, shared by many others, that a low Sunni turnout would undermine the new government and worsen tensions among the country’s ethnic, religious and cultural groups.

The greater the Sunni participation in the next government, the less the chance the insurgency will be able to impose its will through a mix of ideology and violence in its strongholds in central Iraq.

Several hundred people turned out to vote in eastern districts of the heavily Sunni city of Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city and a centre for insurgent violence in past months.

But in western parts of Mosul, clashes erupted between guerrillas and Iraqi soldiers.

A ticket endorsed by the country’s leading Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is expected to fare best among the 111 candidate lists.

However, no faction is expected to win an outright majority, meaning possibly weeks of political deal-making before a new prime minister is chosen.

The Shi’ites make up a majority 60 per cent of the population.

The elections will also give Kurds, comprising 20 per cent of the population, a chance to gain more influence in Iraq after long years of persecution.

The election will create a 275-member National Assembly and 18 provincial legislatures.

The assembly will draw up the country’s permanent constitution and will select a president and two deputy presidents, who in turn will name a new prime minister and cabinet to serve for 11 months until new elections are held.

Final results of the election will not be known for seven to 10 days, but a preliminary tally could come as early as late today.